A Season With the Good News Bears


by Paul Gilbert
Newsweek, August 8, 2005

I rode a roller coaster nonstop for two months this year. No, I wasn't trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records or aiming for status as some kind of amusement-park legend. I was on a different kind of heart-pumping adventure: I was the coach of a girls' softball team.

I had coached my 9-year-old daughter Samantha's basketball team for two years, so naturally I was recruited for softball, too, which turned out to be a much bigger investment of time and energy. I spent up to 10 hours a week surrounded by young girls who were also determined to run the team. There were times when I felt like the beleaguered father in "Cheaper by the Dozen," except that my family was made up entirely of prepubescent females.

Having participated in numerous sports as a child, I knew how important a coach could be in a kid's life. I was an outside-the-classroom teacher, with a diverse curriculum that included Elementary Base Running, Fielding 101 and The Art of Hitting. But I also used sports as a fun way to educate my players about life skills such as goal setting, teamwork and self-esteem.

At our first practice, I told them that we would have only three rules: listen, learn and have fun. The first one was a huge challenge. If I got a dollar for every time I yelled "Listen up!" I'd have driven home from practice in a new Porsche. Fortunately, learning comes naturally to kids that age, and it was extremely satisfying to see the things that we worked on during the season gradually settle in. As far as having fun went, we always led the league in that category.

In many ways, it was easier to do that with girls than with boys. With less testosterone floating around, there wasn't as much of the "winning is everything" mentality that seems innate to the male species. Winning mattered to my girls, but they weren't consumed by it. All you had to do was listen to the cheers emanating from the bench, classics like: "She feels special, she feels great, she just stepped on ... home plate!" Boys wouldn't be caught dead doing that. Then there was the postgame ritual where the losing team would run over to the winner's dugout, form a London Bridge-type tunnel and pat the victors on the back. Can you imagine the Yankees and Red Sox exhibiting such playful sportsmanship? George Steinbrenner would have a coronary.

On the other hand, young girls can be a bit moody. Sometimes, a game would deteriorate into a whine-and-jeez party, as in "I have to go to the bathroom again" or "I don't want to play right field." I was waiting for the day when one of them text-messaged me during a game to ask, "When is it going to be my turn to pitch?"

As a coach, I was equal parts instructor, psychologist and cheerleader. When the girls did well, they looked to me for praise. When they made a mistake, they sought reassurance. If one of them was hit by a pitch, I was there to comfort her because despite what Tom Hanks said about baseball in "A League of Their Own," there iscrying in softball. When my players called me Coach, I felt a quiet sense of pride because it implied trust and respect. I may have criticized and commanded, but deep down they knew my job was to bring out the best in them.

The kids taught me, too. In one game, we blew a lead in the top of the final inning and I was moping around, thinking of all the reasons we should have won. Suddenly, we mounted a two-out rally that ended with a game-winning home run. Amid a wild celebration, I remembered the cardinal rule of athletic competition: it's not over until it's over. I had my motley crew of Good News Bears to thank for that.

Sometimes I had to work hard to contain my own competitive juices. As coaches, we promoted the concept of "friendly rivalries" and taught our players to enjoy the journey, rather than judge their performance just by the final score. But it was obvious how much the adults wanted to win, and it was a real struggle to let our girls be kids for a while longer.

In many respects, this was their last phase of sports innocence. At the next level, the competition ratchets up and lesser-skilled players start dropping out. There were a few girls on my team who weren't natural athletes, but they kept trying. And when they did succeed on even the slightest level and the other players chanted their names, the looks on their faces were priceless. It was those moments that made coaching so rewarding.

Our team ended up in second to last place, but no matter how I look at it, the season was an unqualified success. Why? The girls learned to keep their eye on the ball, take a solid cut at the plate, be good teammates and play the game one pitch at a time. Works in softball, works in life.

Wendi Gilbert